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Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal
obscures the history of resistance by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and African
Americans to New York City’s “West Side Urban Renewal” in the late 1960s and
early 1970s. The activists of “Operation Move-In,” the West Side’s contentious
housing movement of 1970, sustained a militant squatters’ campaign that opposed
the removal of thousands of low-income, mostly minority tenants from their
homes. Though the collaboration between real estate developers, banks, and city
administrative agencies gradually succeeded in massive displacement of working class
residents, the squatters of Operation Move-In reduced the immediate impact of
gentrification policies by taking possession of buildings earmarked for destruction
and by negotiating a higher percentage of units for low-income tenants in high-rise
developments. From the squatters’ movement emerged El Comité, one of the main
organizations of the Puerto Rican Left throughout the 1970s.
The experience of Operation Move-In demonstrates the partial effectiveness
of sustained, organized protest that used disruptive tactics, persuasive mobilizing
frames, and broad alliances to assert community-based power and force concessions
from elites. The history of the formation and early stages of politicization of El
Comité, as an outgrowth of that movement, illustrates how a radical political
perspective developed organically among predominantly working-class Puerto Rican
activists, rather than as a product of
a priori
ideology. Among the multiple factors that
contributed to political consciousness and activism in the period were the intersecting
experiences of national identity, race, and class of Puerto Ricans in New York City.
“We had just come out of the park. It was a hot summer day, and we wanted to drink a
beer,” recalled Pedro Rentas as he and several others talked about the origins of El Comité
in a recent interview in Puerto Rico.
On a June afternoon in 1970, a group of young men
in their early 20s, all Puerto Rican except for one Dominican, gathered to play softball
at a local sandlot in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Upon emerging from the field and
trying to collect beer money to quench their thirst, they began calling on neighborhood
residents to chip in for their cause. “Someone started with, ‘Hey, I got a dollar.’
Here’s two, then three. We started horsing around, and people from the windows started
throwing us money. Before you knew it, we had almost $100!” (Pedro Rentas, 6/18/04)
[ 110 ]
In the summer of 1970 the Upper West Side of Manhattan was a densely
populated, ethnically diverse, mainly working-class area. Russians, Irish, Italians,
and African Americans lived in close proximity to the newest arrivals—Puerto
Ricans who fled growing unemployment in Puerto Rico a decade or two earlier
and, in lesser numbers, Dominicans who left the Dominican Republic following
the U.S. military invasion in 1965 and subsequent liberalization of U.S. immigration
policy (Lyford 1968). At the western border along West End Avenue and sparsely
interspersed within the two-square-mile area, more affluent newcomers
(mainly professionals) had begun to inhabit the area through investment incentives
offered by the city’s Department of Real Estate (Wilson 1987: 37). In the throes
of summer’s heat, with little air conditioning and no elevators in the five- and six-
story tenements, neighborhood residents leaned out of their windows or relaxed on
stoops while children played on sidewalks and under the fire hydrants.
We felt like…this is too much money. At that time a beer cost us a quarter…. So we
stopped the ice cream truck and bought ice cream for all the kids. It was marvelous,
right? I mean, everybody just came down. We must have bought something like 80
or 90 ice creams that day. And everybody had a great time…. So we did it again the
following week. (Pedro Rentas, 6/18/04)
As the story is told by El Comité’s founders, the softball players were inspired
by the excitement and satisfaction they felt in this one small collective act.
They decided to do something more:
We cleaned up this little basketball court in the lot. Some guy loaned us a movie,
we borrowed a projector, and someone gave us light. On Friday night everybody
came down to see the movie,
Planet of the Apes
, even the Gringos. You know,
at the corner it was Puerto Ricans. But further up it was middle-class Gringos.
They came down, and they really enjoyed it. (Pedro Rentas, 6/18/04)
The softball players were not part of any social action or political movement.
Several were armed services veterans; one worked in an automobile factory and
another at a steel plant; others were unemployed laborers. Another, Marine Corps
veteran Federico Lora, had recently enrolled in an architectural program at Pratt
Institute upon returning from his tour of duty in Vietnam. The friends had not
discussed politics and had no political aspirations. However, within a short span of
several months, they squatted in a storefront on Columbus Avenue and West 88th
Street and became principal agitators for housing rights in their neighborhood.
Joined first by companions and friends and gradually by other activists, they
called themselves El Comité. By the end of one year, the group identified with the
struggle for independence in Puerto Rico and democratization and revolutionary
movements throughout the Caribbean and Latin America and deepened its
involvement in campaigns for quality housing, education, and employment and
against police brutality in New York City.
Adopting the symbolic dress of black berets worn by other young militants
of their time, they were often mistaken for the Young Lords in these early days.
But, though the Puerto Rican independence groups at the time shared similar
beliefs, El Comité chose to remain separate from the Young Lords and the others,
and distinguished itself as a distinct political force in several neighborhoods and
[ 111 ]
work sites and through the pages of its first bi-weekly newspaper,
Unidad Latina
The structural and historical factors discussed below—including the economic
and social conditions Puerto Rican migrants faced in New York, the domestic
and international political environment, and the growth of the pro-independence
movement—indicate how class, race, and ethnicity intersected in El Comité’s
process of radicalization.
Puerto Ricans and New York’s Political Economy: 1960s
The U.S. economy boomed in the post-World War II period through the early
1970s until a combination of national and international conditions began to impede
economic growth and reverse the rising standard of living attained by some sectors of
U.S. workers (Harrison and Bluestone 1990). But prosperity at the height of growth
and suffering at the depths of recession were not shared in common by U.S. workers.
Despite the 1960s “War on Poverty” and affirmative action legislation, by 1974 one-
third of all Puerto Rican families lived below the poverty line (U.S. Commission on
Civil Rights 1976: 47).
Locally, New York City’s transition from a manufacture- to a service-based
economy was experienced by minority workers as economic contraction.
Simultaneously with a massive outflow of Whites to the suburbs, New York
City lost 500,000 jobs in the 1960s and 1970s, most in the manufacturing sector
(Ross and Trachte 2006: 108). In the 1960s alone, the percentage of the Puerto
Rican workforce that was employed in manufacturing dropped from 55 percent
to 41 percent (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 1976: 52). Though office jobs
increased slightly, the housing shortage encouraged some large corporations
[ 112 ]
to leave the city and discouraged others from locating their headquarters in
Manhattan. Workers took what was available in the low-paying service sectors,
as waiters, kitchen help, porters, and hospital workers, and in light industry
sweatshops. Through the 1970s, the unemployment rate for Puerto Ricans was
twice the overall rate of unemployment in New York City (Torres 1995: 62).
Puerto Rican workers’ experience in New York City was similar to that of
African Americans. Both were excluded from the private unionized sectors that
had negotiated job security and career ladders through collective bargaining.
This was especially true in the construction trades, where White immigrant
workers and their descendants, aided by union leaders, blocked union entry and
opposed affirmative action programs by aligning with the Nixon administration
against the more liberal policy proposals of Mayor Lindsay. To make matters
worse, the encroaching fiscal crisis threatened to disproportionately harm recently
hired minorities in the public sector and residents who depended most on public
health care, education, and welfare programs.
By the late 1960s, housing deterioration in neighborhoods inhabited by low-
income residents had become critical. The federally subsidized high-rise public
housing projects built in the 1950s under the direction of Robert Moses had failed
the city’s poor. Neighborhoods were nearly destroyed when sites were cleared for
public housing construction. With few small businesses and low-rise buildings
remaining, the areas surrounding the projects spiraled downward. Still, the need
for housing was great. Though the projects were chronically undermaintained,
thousands of applicants lingered for years on waiting lists for entry to the projects.
Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and long-time African-American residents occupied
the worst of the city’s public and non-public housing stock, even in the less-
segregated neighborhoods of the West Side:
The larger and poorer the family unit, the less living space it has, and the more
dilapidated the housing. In one typically overcrowded sector of the West Side,
for instance, 62 percent of the Negroes (sic) and 42 percent of the Spanish (sic)
lived in one or two rooms…. [O]f those Spanish families in one- or two-room
apartments, 68 percent had one or more children. (Lyford 1968: 6)
In the case of Puerto Ricans in particular, reduced access to public subsidized
housing coincided with the massive exodus of jobs in manufacturing and light
industries from New York City during the 1960s (Sánchez 1989: 40).
Many of the crumbling buildings in the West Side had been constructed in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as single-family homes and were
converted in the mid-1900s to rooming houses by absentee landlords. The city
collaborated in the West Side’s rapid increase in population density by approving,
time after time, zoning changes for the subdivision of larger apartments into smaller
units. Interspersed between these buildings were private tenements, public housing
units, abandoned buildings, and some owner-occupied brownstones. The plumbing,
heating, and electrical systems in hundreds of city- and privately owned buildings
were antiquated. Residents were frustrated by frequent power outages triggered
simply by turning on a toaster at the same time a fan recycled hot, stale air; many
families lived without functional kitchen and bathroom facilities. Epidemic rat
infestation and lead poisoning threatened the health of children who were already
underserved by resource-strained health providers in poor neighborhoods.
[ 113 ]
[ 114 ]
School conditions for most African American and Puerto Rican children were
equally dismal by the time the first Puerto Rican, Joseph Monserrat, was appointed
President of the New York City Board of Education in 1969. The schools they
attended were the most densely populated. Despite the 1954
Brown v. Board of
Supreme Court ruling and the persistent national myth that segregation
was a southern problem, racial segregation in education worsened in the New
York region in the 1960s (and is even more acute today) (Gittell and Hevesi 1969;
Orfield et al. 1997). In disproportionate numbers, minority students were tracked
into special education programs as early as the first grade and, if they did not drop
out, often ended up in vocational rather than academic high schools.
El Comité office on Columbus Avenue and W. 88 Street (circa 1971).
Photograph by Maximo Colon ©. Reprinted by persmission.
El Comité members: Federico, Carmen, Nancy, Cano, Nelson (circa 1971).
Photograph by Maximo Colon ©. Reprinted by persmission.
[ 115 ]
Though Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided federal funds to schools with
large numbers of children who were poor and/or not fluent in English, the children
needing those resources most did not benefit because the funds were used to provide
regular instructional services that were financed by local funds in other schools.
“Puerto Ricans were thought of not as people but as ‘the Puerto Rican problem,’
as welfare recipients;” and students whose primary language was other than English
were “barred from meaningful participation in education programs” (Monserrat n.d.).
Between 1960 and 1970, the high school dropout rate hovered around thirty percent
for Puerto Rican students and twenty-five percent for African Americans, while it
remained under ten percent for Whites (Monserrat n.d.).
In 1960 the median income of Puerto Rican and African American families was
approximately 60 and 70 percent, respectively, that of Whites; by 1970 the gap
widened to 53 percent for Puerto Ricans and 69 percent for African Americans.
Though African Americans made greater inroads into the public sector as civil
servants, both groups were the first and worst hit by the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.
They paid the highest rents for the worst housing and were stuck in the poorest
schools. A few Puerto Ricans entered mainstream politics, especially under liberal
city administrations. But, as a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 1976
observed, Puerto Rican appointees or elected officials were unable to improve
the socioeconomic profile of Puerto Ricans (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 1976).
Political Protest in New York: 1960s
Political protest in New York City in the 1960s was, in broad terms, structurally
conditioned by the contradictions engendered by national economic expansion and
the impact of capital outflows from inner cities to outlying suburbs: on the one hand,
economic growth, rising incomes, and low unemployment for some sectors; on the other
hand, embedded poverty, poor services, high unemployment, and police repression for
others, predominantly minorities. Although in the early 1960s, especially after the death
of Malcolm X, New York was not a principal location for civil rights movement activity,
the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) remained active in Harlem and Brooklyn
and, among other things, raised the profile of police brutality against minority
youth. When a Black youth was killed by an off-duty officer in 1964, police arrested
CORE’s leaders at a protest rally in Harlem. Five nights of riots followed the arrests,
during which fifteen Blacks were shot by police (one fatally) and 116 people were
injured (Lader 1979: 158–9). For the next few years, spontaneous riots and organized
rallies occurred in several communities in response to incidents of police brutality.
The first half of the decade is also well known for tenant rent strikes.
Mobilization for Youth, CORE, Harlem Tenants’ Council, Metropolitan Council
on Housing, University Settlement, and Puertorriqueños Unidos led or supported
rent strikes and distributed information on tenants’ rights throughout the city.
Although strikes were frequent, tenant militancy was difficult to sustain
(Schwartz 1986: 10–1). Tenant actions resulted in few reforms and did not stop
the spread of slums or significantly increase the supply of desirable public housing.
By the late 1960s, tenant councils and advocates wanted to explore more aggressive
solutions to the escalating housing crisis.
Labor activism was prevalent as well. On January 1, 1966, the first day of Mayor
Lindsay’s tenure, the Transit Workers’ Union and Amalgamated Transit Union
began a twelve-day strike for higher wages and better work environments. In some
instances, job actions by municipal unions exposed a growing rift between White
union members and minorities interested in job access and education reform.
The strike of the United Federation of Teachers in 1968 drew a clear line of
hostility between the union on one side and the parents and other activists in
minority-dominant districts on the other side who wanted Board of Education
power decentralized into local community school boards where parents could have
greater input into education policy and school conditions.
Indeed, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the political environment in New
York City was volatile. The writings of Malcolm X, the southern-based civil
rights movement, the ideas of affirmative action, and the emerging Black
Panthers’ platform of community control spread through minority communities
and coincided with students demanding open admissions to the City University
system, insisting on the incorporation of Puerto Rican and Black Studies programs,
and protesting the Vietnam War. When activists from Harlem and the Upper
West Side joined forces with Columbia University students to protest the war
and to condemn Columbia’s proposal for a new gymnasium in Morningside Park,
alarms rang throughout the city and especially in the offices of the New York
City School Board. In April 1968 police forcibly and violently removed hundreds
of students from the buildings they had taken over on campus (Melendez 2003:
Expressing concern for “escalating rebellion” among “radical fringes” in
the schools, the School Board directed its faculty to attend workshops on how
to control unrest, walkouts, and school takeovers (Monserrat n.d.). Internal
discussions between the Board and the High School Principals’ Association
focused on developing strategies to “isolate militants”(Monserrat n.d.). Fearing
spontaneous youth reactions, New York City schools were shut down the day after
four student anti-war protesters were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent
State University in May 1970.
Puerto Rican Activism
In this environment, two significant but distinct radical movements of Puerto
Rican activists attempted to draw Puerto Ricans in New York City into contentious
political action. With the goal of recruiting Puerto Ricans in the U.S. to the
independence movement, the recently established branch of the Movimiento
Pro Independencia (MPI) held neighborhood meetings to discuss Puerto Rico’s
colonial status and sponsored street gatherings commemorating historic occasions
of nationalist rebellion. MPI believed that Puerto Ricans in the U.S. should make
the anti-colonial movement their political priority.
Meanwhile, a very different Puerto Rican movement emerged. In 1967,
the Young Lords of Chicago, under the leadership of Cha Cha Jimenez,
transformed from a street gang to a militant political action group seeking
community control in their neighborhoods. Nearly two years later,
East Harlem activist and SUNY College at Old Westbury student Mickey
Melendez drove to Chicago with a college admissions officer to recruit Latino
students to Old Westbury. There, Melendez met Jimenez, initiating a network
of communication between New York activists and the more organized
Chicago group. In 1969, a newly formed East Coast chapter of the Young
Lords Organization exploded onto the scene in New York City, denouncing
poor housing, inadequate health care and sanitation services, and inferior
schools in East Harlem (Melendez 2003).
[ 116 ]
Two years prior to the famous “Garbage Offensive” led by the Young Lords
in East Harlem, Mayor Lindsay had convened a conference of Puerto Rican
community groups, asking for recommendations to improve living conditions
in Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Despite several proposals made by the groups,
the Lindsay Administration pursued no progressive policy measures.
Frustrated with routine political avenues and skeptical of the Lindsay
Administration’s avowed commitment to reform, the Young Lords felt
compelled to act. By their own accounts, the garbage protest was designed to
show local residents that bold community action designed to disrupt business
as usual was needed to force the city to act on just demands:
[A]rmed with large brooms, the Lords and some volunteers swept the street and
stockpiled large quantities of garbage.… [W]e started to sweep the garbage into
the streets, particularly around the bus stops and the center of Second and Third
Avenues, near 106th, 111th, 116th, and 118th Streets…. [T]he garbage formed a
five-foot-high wall across the six lanes of Third Avenue, causing an unexpected
traffic jam. Some drivers cursed and screamed at the piles of garbage and at us.
Others nodded their heads and blew the horns of their cars…. The only choice we
had was confrontational politics…. (Melendez 2003: 102–5)
Through the media attention garnered by this and similarly disruptive actions
over the next two years, the Young Lords dramatically raised the profile of Puerto
Rican grievances in New York City (Sánchez 2007: 204–7). The group’s militancy
influenced many activists just around the time a revitalized housing movement
[ 117 ]
on the West Side chose squatting as its strategy for confronting the city and
private slumlords. Though the Young Lords were not primary actors in the West
Side housing movement that erupted in 1970, no doubt they expanded networks
of communication and contributed greatly to the growing acceptance by Puerto
Ricans and Dominicans of contentious protest as effective political action. On the
West Side of Manhattan, it was the city’s disregard for the needs of low-income
residents in the urban renewal zones that provoked confrontation.
Urban “Renewal” or “Removal”?
Following World War II, the demand for a federal response to housing shortages
and urban decay made by a broad coalition of progressive political forces and
organized labor led to the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, which stated that
every American deserves a “decent home and a suitable living environment”
(Lang and Sohmer 2000). However, the implementation of the Act, under Title
I, proved controversial in the nation’s cities as federal funds were used mainly for
“slum clearance” (Lang and Sohmer 2000; Davies 1966). Federal legislation in 1954
revised and expanded federal housing support to include urban renewal projects that
[ 118 ]
Operation Move-In
Headquarters on Columbus Avenue near W. 90th Street (circa 1971).
Photograph by Maximo Colon ©. Reprinted by persmission.
Squatters’ respond to ‘urban removal’ at Site 30: ¡Basta Ya! We Won’t Move! (circa
1971). Photograph by Maximo Colon ©. Reprinted by persmission.
combined demolition and new construction with neighborhood conservation
and renovation rather than complete neighborhood demolition.
New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. established the Urban Renewal
Board to oversee a pilot project in the West Side Urban Renewal Area (WSURA)
that ran from West 87th to West 97th Streets between Central Park West and
Amsterdam Avenue (Davies 1966: 112). As approved in 1959, the project was
to build 7,800 low- and high-rise, public and private housing units, of which
1,000 (approximately 13 percent) would be reserved for low-income, 4,200 for
middle-income, and 2,600 for upper-income residents. The plan was derived
as a compromise between the Urban Renewal Board and the Strycker’s Bay
Neighborhood Council, which represented seventeen tenant and neighborhood
groups in the WSURA and had negotiated an increase in the number of units
earmarked for low- and middle-income residents.
However, in 1962 the Puerto Rican Citizen’s Housing Committee, comprised
of five Puerto Ricans who had worked in city agencies, and formed to study
the impact of the plan, concluded that no less than 30 percent of the 7,800
housing units (2,340 units) should be reserved for low-income occupants and that
minimal demolition and relocation of area residents should occur. Though the
Committee was not a grassroots organization with representatives from affected
neighborhoods, its position was widely publicized by local newspapers and tenant
advocates. Under the leadership of Father Henry Browne of St. Gregory’s Church,
Strycker’s Bay agreed with the Puerto Rican Citizens’ Housing Committee that
the WSURA should designate 30 percent of new units for low-income families,
that new construction should cause minimal neighborhood disruption, and that
the city should make a greater commitment to rehabilitating existing housing
for working class residents.
These demands became the goals of the housing
movement in the ensuing years.
[ 119 ]
The WSURA plan had no provision to renovate salvageable, abandoned buildings
for tenants living in inferior housing.
It envisioned redevelopment through the
demolition of thousands of housing units, the building of mostly high-rise subsidized
apartments, and tax incentives to banks and private investors to construct market-
rate housing. Rather than admitting that low-income residents would not have access
to the new housing, the city promised that families removed from selected sites for
the duration of repairs would be welcomed back to their neighborhoods.
The main premise of “urban renewal” was that new and improved housing,
occupied by no more than 30 percent low-income families along with a majority of
upper- and middle-income families paying income-adjusted rents, would stabilize
communities and invigorate the local economy. But West Side residents’ prior
experience with Title I cast doubt that the city would honor its commitment to
reserve even 30 percent of new housing stock for low-income, displaced residents.
Earlier in the decade, 4,000 residential units had been demolished from West
97th to West 100th Street, between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenues
(the Park West Village Development); and, despite promises to the contrary, the
majority of displaced residents could not afford the rents in the newly constructed
[ 120 ]
El Comité and other Operation Move-In members march on Amsterdam Avenue to Anti-Vietnam
War Rally at City College (circa 1971). Photograph by Maximo Colon ©. Reprinted by permission.
Operation Move-In families march to a rally (circa 1971).Photograph by Maximo Colon ©.
Reprinted by permission.
buildings. The city’s dismal record of dislocation was evidenced, as well, by the
earlier Lincoln Center project, where development was primarily nonresidential
and uprooted families (Puerto Rican, in large numbers) had not been able to
return to the area.
The city insisted that all known, eligible residents were given
the opportunity to apply for the new housing if they could afford the rent—the
operative principles being “eligibility” and “affordability.” The federal Housing and
Urban Development Act of 1970 redefined subsidy guidelines by increasing the
percentage of income public housing tenants were required to pay which, together
with higher-than-expected rents, kept families who relied on Section 8 out of the
new housing developments.
In the West Side and Morningside Heights areas, where many buildings were
slated for demolition, the city had ignored tenants’ grievances for years or, at best,
had assigned insufficient numbers of inspectors to issue fines to unresponsive
slumlords. “Urban removal,” as it was dubbed by local activists, increased racial
and class segregation rather than integration by forcing long-time tenants out
of salvageable buildings and relocating them to inferior housing in the outer
boroughs. Those who remained in overcrowded and often unsafe tenements
gleaned no hope from redevelopment plans.
Adding to the disillusionment with “urban removal” was the appearance of
collusion between private developers and Puerto Rican political or anti-poverty
agency leaders, particularly Herman Badillo, Ramón Vélez, and Amy Betances,
who denied the deleterious impact of “urban renewal” on low-income, minority
In 1962 Badillo was appointed Commissioner of the newly formed
Department of Housing Relocation. As Commissioner until 1965 and Bronx Borough
President from 1965 to 1970, he worked with real estate developers on an agenda of
urban revitalization that vulnerable residents of Manhattan viewed as gentrification:
As part of an overall plan by the government to keep both industry and the
professional, administrative and managerial classes in the city, certain communities
in Manhattan were selected to undergo a complete structural overhaul, and racial
and class transformation…. Families were uprooted to make way for communities
designed to attract professionals…. [L]ess than 10 percent [of uprooted families]
were ‘granted’ their rights to a home in the newly built apartments…. Badillo
operated not in defense of working class interests, but in defense of large
corporations who [did not want to] lose their skilled employees to suburban jobs.
As community activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes commented in the documentary
Break and Enter
, working-class residents paid—in taxes and blood—for the War
in Vietnam and for a national space exploration program while the City colluded
behind their backs with private investors and real estate speculators
West Side Squatters’ Movement: “Operation Move-In”
The squatters’ movement in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Morningside
Heights erupted in the spring of 1970 when groups of residents seized and claimed
possession of vacant buildings. Although the initial move-ins were more spontaneous
than part of a deliberately planned strategy of an organized movement, anger
and frustration over the city’s housing plan had been swelling for some months.
Institutional political processes had not produced positive results. When a young
boy, Jimmy Santos, died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a first-floor apartment
[ 121 ]
on West 106th Street, protest escalated. On the evening following the funeral street
march held for the child, local anti-poverty and tenant advocate groups helped
several dozen families break into nine sealed buildings designated for demolition on
and around Columbus Avenue and the West 80s in the West Side Urban Renewal
While squatters moved at night with crowbars to peel off the seals covering
doors and windows, supporters cheered on the streets as furniture was moved with
ropes through windows from the Santos residence into one of the closed buildings.
For years, tenants and advocates pleaded and negotiated with the city to alter its
urban renewal plan. Now, residents forced negotiations by occupying buildings slated
for demolition or abandoned. As word of the action spread that month and the next,
more families—mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican—joined “Operation Move-
In.” Other local residents, together with veteran tenant and community agencies,
mobilized support for the defiant tactics. The formal organizations and institutions
in the area, including Community Action, Inc., the Mid-West Side Community
Corp., and several churches provided material and moral support for the actions:
There was documentation of the vast amount of dislocation that had already occurred
in that neighborhood and the reality that very few people had actually been able to
return, despite all the struggle. That became the theme—that the city made these
promises and we’re going to hold them to it. So squatting was a logical development
at a certain point, especially given the tenor of the times. The students were taking
over the campuses in protest of the invasion of Cambodia; Jackson State and Kent
State hit—Spring of 1970. The country was in ferment. Only a year and a half earlier
we had the Columbia student takeovers and other student protests. Taking these
buildings was almost the natural thing to do. (Tom Gogan, 3/24/07)
Initially the city threatened the squatters with forced eviction and sent squads of
maintenance workers to apartments and buildings not yet occupied to break fixtures,
remove stoves, refrigerators and sinks, and wreck electrical wiring to deter further
But the squatters refused to vacate the apartments. Two weeks after the
initial occupations, the city reversed course, saying squatters would be allowed to
stay temporarily, but no further actions would be tolerated. New locks were put in,
and some fixtures were replaced. Operation Move-In, however, was in full swing.
In June 1970 the softball players who organized Friday night movies at the local
sandlot joined the squatters by breaking the lock and prying open the door of a
vacant storefront:
I remember one of you guys came up with the idea of a storefront, because Operation
Move-In was already functioning. They had taken over apartments. And we knew that
the storefront [on Columbus and 88th Street] was empty. We moved in on a weekend
and began to clean it up. (Federico Lora, 6/18/04)
From the moment they took the storefront, neighborhood residents stopped in to
meet the new group. Luis Ithier, for example, was curious:
The day they broke into the storefront, I was coming from Under the Stairs [a local
bar]. I’m hearing this commotion in front of the storefront. I knew all these guys.
I thought it was going to be something like a social club. Many of the guys thought
so too—Israel, Archie, John, Cuba, Cubita—to be quite honest. (Luis Itheir, 3/18/06)
[ 122 ]
The group that squatted at 588 Columbus Avenue had no clear political agenda
other than a vague idea that “the people” were justified in taking direct action
against the political establishment to control their own destiny.
They were
moved by the bravery of the families confronting the tactical police squads sent by
the city when a building was taken and went as a group to each site to help defend
the occupations.
Nobody took over the storefront so that we could become a political organization.
People were squatting. There was a lot of territory open to take…. We ourselves,
our families, were affected by the housing situation and by Operation Move-In.
Once we took the storefront, as squatters ourselves, we became part of that
movement. But initially it was not organized. (Carmen Martell, 6/18/04)
Within several weeks of opening, thirty or more individuals, calling themselves
El Comité, began meeting daily at the storefront to strategize about how to sustain
the housing movement. The definition of “the people” seemed evident: it meant
the poor, struggling families in their community who were mainly Puerto Rican,
Dominican, and African American.
But it did not include Puerto Ricans in city
government who the activists believed had betrayed the community by advocating
the interests of banks and real estate speculators.
While many individuals and groups who joined Operation Move-In were from
the neighborhood, others were not. El Comité wanted to ensure that families who
had already been moved out of the neighborhood or expected to be removed would
have priority access to apartments in buildings that were taken over as well as to
new public housing:
We went to a meeting between Operation Move-In and Strycker’s Bay. The thing
was that people from the West Side, people we knew, had been moved out.
They were sent to the Bronx, Long Island, wherever. And some of the people
coming in had nothing to do with the West Side. The West Side was Puerto Rican,
Irish, and a lot of Russians. In fact, the building in front of El Comité was the
old Russian Embassy. So Federico spoke at that meeting. And we asked,
‘Who guarantees that whoever gets an apartment in these spaces is from here?’
We started getting apartments for the people who used to live here. We brought
them back. (Pedro Rentas, 6/18/04)
The influence El Comité garnered quickly among veteran activists and local
residents was likely attributable to its neighborhood roots and vocal insistence
that the movement should benefit needy residents before newcomers.
The members and their families lived in West Side tenements and projects.
Some had children who attended local schools. They tended to be older than
the students from Columbia and the Young Lords from the other side of town
and matured, in some cases, by their military experience. Federico Lora emerged
as an articulate and confident spokesperson and, before long, a respected
community leader. Ana Juarbe, a long-time resident of the West Side and
secretary at Columbia University when she became involved with the squatters,
recalled her first impression of El Comité:
[ 123 ]
We used to have women’s groups as squatters on W. 111th Street…. I was in awe
of these articulate, strong, intelligent, leadership roles. The way they carried
themselves…. I really wasn’t political…but, my goodness, all these Latinos were
like a breath of fresh air. They were so untraditional; they weren’t ghetto.
When there were takeovers, all kinds of people would come on the scene.
I remember asking, ‘Who are these people?’ That’s the first time I saw the
people from El Comité. (Ana Juarbe, 4/8/06)
Motivated by the desire to protect the interests of local residents previously
displaced or awaiting eviction, El Comité became a principal force within
Operation Move-In:
We decided we wanted to confront the housing situation in a more organized
fashion…. [W]e started planning which buildings should be taken over,
which families should go here or there. We became more organized, rather than
spontaneous. (Carmen Martell, 6/18/04)
One account of tenant movement history in New York City makes exactly that
point about the West Side squatters:
Ad hoc move-ins occurred on West 15th Street in Greenwich Village (sic) and on 111th
and 122nd Streets…. But squatting became more systematic on West 87th Street and
along Columbus Avenue, where buildings awaited luxury conversion or demolition
for middle-income high rises as part of the West Side Urban Renewal. At night,
blacks and Puerto Ricans, prying open boarded-up entrances and rigging makeshift
living arrangements, presented the city with a fait accompli—either recognize their
‘ownership’ or evict whole families in front of press photographers. Eventually,
the Columbus Avenue Operation Move-In claimed one hundred participating
families… (and) were supported by elaborate networks….
(Schwartz 1986: 23)
Actually, the West Side squatters grew to over 200 families on the night of July
25, 1970, when 54 families, including 120 children, occupied two privately owned
buildings earmarked for demolition on Amsterdam Avenue and West 112th Street
in Morningside Heights.
The two buildings and four others were scheduled for
demolition to make way for a luxury nursing home to be built by Morningside,
Inc., a non-profit corporation connected to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Six hundred residents had been evicted from the six buildings. Operation Move-
In, of which El Comité was now a part, provided the organizers of the action
with a waiting list of families living in overcrowded and unsafe conditions and
interested in squatting. Student organizers went door-to-door visiting families
in the Manhattan Valley neighborhood to mobilize those willing to move into
the buildings. The morning following the takeover, the squatters and supporters
greeted churchgoers with news of the occupation. Though St. John the Divine,
sitting directly across from the buildings, officially denounced the occupation
at the Sunday service, out of the church walked “Episcopalians for the Poor,”
pledging their support for the action.
For the next few weeks, students in the “Urban Brigade,” mainly Latinos from
Columbia University and Barnard College, and community activists met with
[ 124 ]
squatters in the occupied buildings and mobilized support throughout the West
Side. Forty-seven community organizations citywide endorsed the actions.
On the
Sunday morning a week after the occupation, Father David García, a radical priest
from the Lower East Side, led a sidewalk Mass with squatters and supporters.
Lindsay would not move against those takeovers because of the community
support. Do you think he would have hesitated if the community opposed this?
No way. How would that have looked to the constituents he wanted to appeal
to? It was a very strong, very liberal (except the newcomers) area. Don’t forget,
Congressman William Fitts Ryan represented the district; Bella Abzug became
Congresswoman in 1971; there were huge anti-war rallies there in the late ‘60s.
When poor people, working class people, people of color took direct action, a lot of
people said, ‘Yeah, ok, we have to support them.’ This was not the Upper East Side.
(Tom Gogan, 3/24/07)
For nearly ten years, Morningside, Inc. tried to repossess the two occupied
buildings through the courts, until Judge Bruce Wright threw the case out in 1979,
and eventually turned the buildings over to the city.
The squatters obtained leases
from the city (and eventually ownership) to apartments in those two buildings,
making it the first successful “squat” up to that point on private property.
In the remaining months of 1970 and well into 1971, El Comité’s members
attended meetings and rallies at St. Gregory’s Church where Federico Lora
often spoke. Activists joined door-to-door leafleting to rally residents to resist
displacement. Manuel Ortiz led the occupation of a building on West 100th St.
and West End Avenue (Manuel Ortiz, 8/1/06). Members appeared at every
public opportunity to confront Betances, Badillo, and other city planners about
the abuse of low-income, minority residents. Badillo was jeered by crowds as
otro pillo
” (another thief). When pressed to produce the list of families living in
the South Bronx who had been removed from the West Side, Badillo claimed
the list had been misplaced or lost.
In response, on a fall afternoon in 1970,
El Comité members informed the police precincts on West 82nd Street and
West 100th Street that they planned a march to the Urban Renewal Office
located near their Columbus Avenue storefront. While several hundred people
waited outside, spokespersons entered the office and asked the site manager to
request a meeting with Badillo on their behalf.
When Badillo refused to meet, El Comité escalated the confrontation by
disrupting the flow of commercial traffic. On a Friday in October at 4:30 p.m.,
the time when food delivery trucks came over the Triboro Bridge and down
Columbus Avenue, protesters blocked the streets to prevent the trucks from
passing. The action was repeated for several consecutive weeks, without police
intervention; but Badillo never met with the group. In order to stop further
demolitions planned for the Mitchell-Lama development, the movement stepped
up the scale of building occupations by moving more families into vacant apartments
and targeting the Mitchell-Lama development sites (Manuel Ortiz, 8/1/06).
The Mitchell-Lama program, begun in the 1950s, provided city and state
mortgage, tax, and rent subsidies to developers who agreed to rent completed
units to moderate-income earners. As in the Lincoln Center area, most of the
families removed from the West Side to make way for high-rise buildings were
low-income and could not expect to afford the new apartments. Occupancy rules
[ 125 ]
[ 126 ]
for the one- and two-bedroom apartments limited the numbers of persons per
apartment, thereby further disqualifying many families. Operation Move-In wanted
the city’s assurance that it would support the position of Strycker’s Bay and the
Puerto Rican Citizens’ Housing Committee, by reserving at least 30 percent of the
Mitchell-Lama units for low-income residents previously removed or to be removed
to make way for the development. “Site 30” of the Mitchell-Lama sites, on the west
side of Columbus Avenue and West 90th Street, was chosen for the takeover.
Directly across the street, on the east side of Columbus Avenue and West 90th
Street, squatters who had previously entered a completed but vacant Mitchell-Lama
building, referred to as “Site 20,” were removed by police after several weeks.
Occupancy by accepted Mitchell-Lama applicants was apparently delayed six months
until March 1971 because of the takeover. According to one of the original Mitchell-Lama
residents, Barbra Minch, the new residents were split in their reaction to the squatters’
actions (Barbra Minch, 2/19/07). When the squatters at Site 30 sought support from
the new residents in Site 20, the residents’ meeting, held to decide whether to hear the
squatters’ position, erupted into a physical fight between supporters and opponents.
It was not the first time conflicts arose between residents excluded from
development plans and newcomers who benefited from subsidized units created by
urban redevelopment. But when the occupation of Site 30 elicited the agreement
with the city that 30 percent of Mitchell-Lama units still to be built would be
guaranteed to low-income families, it seemed that the squatters had won another
round. The city agreed to construct an additional 946 low-income and 1,117 middle-
income units in the West Side Urban Renewal Area but also vowed to evict future
squatters from vacant buildings.
We were able to get many families into the buildings we took over on 87th Street,
many of whom are still there. We stopped demolition for Mitchell-Lama on Site 30
until the city agreed to meet the quota that 30 percent of all units would be reserved
for low-income applicants. (Carmen Martell, 6/18/04)
Despite its verbal agreement, however, the city managed to reduce the proportion
of low-income occupancy in Mitchell-Lama residences to well below the promised quota.
According to Minch, one manipulative tactic on the city’s part was to seek and accept
applicants (such as law students) whose long-term projected income far exceeded low-
income eligibility guidelines. Another tactic, according to Eulogio Ortiz and Maria
Collado, was setting eligibility rules that many displaced residents could not meet
(Ortiz and Collado, 4/13/06). For example, a family of seven exceeded the occupancy
limit for most of the new units. On the other end, a single person was eligible only for the
few studios but not for one-bedroom apartments. Also, the city played carrot-and-stick.
They conceded more favorable terms for the Mitchell-Lama site, and some buildings
were transferred to squatters’ control or ownership. Dozens of families were permitted
to renovate, and rents remained stabilized. Many squatters, however, were taken out by
city police. In November 1970 thirty individuals were removed from a building on West
87th Street and arrested (including Pedro Rentas of El Comité) by fifty members of the
Tactical Patrol Force. The city said the squatters violated the agreement that no more
families would move into buildings earmarked for demolition.
However, demonstrators
maintained that the building had not been sealed by the city because one old tenant
remained and, therefore, squatters had not violated the agreement.
[ 127 ]
There were other counterattacks as well. The urban renewal plan created
schisms not only in the Upper West Side but throughout the city between those
who believed the plan’s opponents were justified and those who detested them.
New York Times
journalist David Shipler obtained the assessment of an unidentified
representative of the real estate industry and local landlord:
Puerto Ricans are not completely civilized—don’t quote me—how can a landlord have
those people?
The “brownstoners” in the Committee of Neighbors to Insure a Normal Urban
Environment (CONTINUE), many of whom were new owner-renovators and
middle- and upper-income professionals, viewed the squatters’ movement as a
threat that would reduce the area to “a racially segregated slum.”
The group
gained the attention of Deputy Mayor Richard Aurelio, Housing and Development
Administrator Albert Walsh, and Relocation Commissioner Earl Rawlins by
vowing to oppose any urban renewal plans that included subsidized housing for the
poor. In its lawsuit to stop subsidized housing altogether, CONTINUE cited the
“tipping” theory that too many poor people of color would exacerbate white flight
and disinvestments. Though the lawsuit eventually failed, CONTINUE delayed and
ultimately discouraged the city from building further publicly subsidized housing on
the West Side. The luxury rental building built on the former Site 30 in the 1980s
reduced to 20 percent the total number of units set aside for “low- to moderate-
income residents… ‘self-subsidized’ by the rents from the rest of the building….”
[ 128 ]
Ironically, in the long-run segregation occurred, though not the type feared
by CONTINUE. The city’s concessions to the housing movement gave activists
partial but short-lived victories, effectively demobilizing the movement and paving
the way for the gradual, wholesale gentrification of the West Side. In the wake of
an institutionalized plan that catered to private developers and ignored the housing
needs of the working class in New York City, segregation in the form of class and
racial gentrification is firmly established and evident throughout the West Side
(and Manhattan) today.
Still, the power potential and short-term achievement of Operation Move-In
lay in the risks taken by men and women, some quite young, who led their own
parents and siblings by the hand through dark hallways in the night, who for the
moment withdrew their consent to allow the city to control their destiny.
The opportunities for broadening the movement beyond the initial takeovers,
in a more coordinated and strategic fashion, derived from two factors: first,
the prior Lincoln Center area development exposed the deleterious impact of
“urban renewal,” damaging the credibility of political elites who extolled the
virtues of the plan as win-win; second, the liberal mayoral administration vacillated
on using police force as a response to illegal occupations.
The movement also benefited from the broad network of support developed
by advocacy organizations and influential allies. Illustrating the effectiveness of
networking by successful social movements, future Manhattan Borough President
Ruth Messinger, State Assemblyman Albert Blumenthal, and State Senator
Manfred Ohrenstein publicly denounced the city’s urban renewal plans.
Frequently shouting “power to the people,” movement participants were
energized as well by the alliances made with students, youth activists,
and organizations around the city.
Occupied buildings were designated as
“liberated zones.” The most successful were those that were cleaned out and set
up with a community kitchen to accommodate people in apartments with no
refrigerators or sinks because of the city rip-outs (Collado, 4/13/06).
The grassroots organizations such as El Comité and advocates such as Strycker’s
Bay Neighborhood Council did not initiate the movement. One participant
observed, however, that “El Comité’s impact on housing was tremendous.
For a time, we got poor, working people back into the community” (Nancy Colón,
4/15/06). Former members of El Comité, friends, and veterans of Operation Move-
In still reside in the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights urban renewal
areas, representing the last stronghold of subsidized renters or co-op owners
of city-transferred properties in the area (Collado, 4/15/06; Martell 6/18/04).
Among the 19,000 working-class families displaced by “urban removal” in
Manhattan in the 1960s and 1970s are activists who continue to struggle against
gentrification and for decent housing, health care, and education in areas such as
Williamsburg and the South Bronx.
Clearly, no sustained victory for working class neighborhoods anywhere in Manhattan
today may be claimed. Tenant mobilization in Operation Move-In subsided as the police
became more aggressive and opportunities to expand the movement diminished.
The compromises made with the squatters ultimately did not hold the city
accountable for deceiving displaced families with the promise that they would be
able to return to their neighborhood to live in decent housing. By the time luxury
housing was constructed on Site 30 of the West Side Urban Renewal Area, many of
the organizations and activists of Operation Move-In had dissipated and dispersed.
[ 129 ]
While the housing movement’s success may have been limited, its impact on
El Comité was far-reaching. The tenuous and partial nature of victory affirmed the
group’s critical perspective, along with the idea that people can launch formidable
challenges to an oppressive system. The victories as well as the losses energized,
rather than demobilized, El Comité.
The struggle against urban renewal was never going to be won. But it created
an urgent sense of need for community education and long-term organizing.
(Manuel Ortiz, 8/1/06)
El Comité became recognized on the West Side as a principled group, independent
of elected leaders and anti-poverty agencies, with no hidden agenda or desire for
acclaim. The group increased its contacts around the city, especially in the Lower
East Side and the South Bronx, and among students who supported the squatters.
They found that creating alliances and gaining institutional support from churches,
storeowners, politicians, and students had been vital to negotiating the city’s
moratorium on evictions and restraint in arrests of squatters and supporters;
but they remained cautious about blanket trust of advocates.
The squatters’ movement also added to the sense of momentum and change
throughout the neighborhood. In her personal account, Esperanza Martell
described the mood on the Upper West Side:
The West Side was a hotbed of struggle. All along the streets and avenues groups
were setting up storefronts in vacant buildings…. There were lots of creative groups
working with the community…a women’s center run by white radical feminists…
Asians… [called] “Chickens Come Home to Roost,” a popular karate school [that]
trained women and people of color in self-defense, …the Nueva Canción cultural
center featuring Latin American protest music, [and] a community newspaper and
food shop run by hippies. Even the middle class was opening their brownstones for
political activities. ( Martell 1998: 179–80)
[ 130 ]
Because a large concentration of Puerto Ricans lived and participated in the
squatters’ movement on the West Side, the Puerto Rican flag was a common
sight on the windows of some of the buildings. It is not unusual in the multiethnic
New York environment to see flags of countries of origin displayed, especially to
symbolize pride in an accomplishment of the home country or to celebrate heritage.
But the symbolism of the Puerto Rican flag was political as well. The message was
one of defiance and empowerment, and El Comité embraced the movement:
At the time I was working at an architectural firm downtown and José Torres had
published a column about Puerto Ricans, “Seeing Red,” and I read the column.
At my job where drafts were made, you could enlarge things. So I enlarged the
column on thick paper. We posted it in front of the storefront, and people began
to read about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans…. That’s how we came about. It had
nothing to do with some of those things I read about. (Federico Lora, 6/18/04)
Within several months of their formation, the group consciously set out to
learn more about Puerto Rico’s revolutionary movement and the conditions
that produced mass migration to the United States. Their venture produced
the transformation from community to Puerto Rican nationalist organization,
which found further expression in a Latin American identity closely aligned with
the struggles of other national minorities in the United States and democratic and
revolutionary movements throughout Latin America and the world.
Colonialism, Migration, and Nationalism as Factors of Political Radicalization
The majority of men and women who formed El Comité or joined in its first two years
either arrived in New York as young children with their families between the 1940s and
1960s or were born here of working-class, immigrant parents. Most came from rural
areas outside of old colonial towns, such as Ponce and Mayagüez, or from emerging
urban centers near San Juan, such as Bayamón. Some had families who were sympathetic
to the Nationalist Party in Puerto Rico; others did not but struggled with questions
about their place in U.S. society while growing up in New York City. Nelson Gómez,
a former construction worker and the oldest member of El Comité, remembered his
affiliation with the Nationalists as a child in Puerto Rico: “I was influenced by the barber
in Mayagüez who used to talk about Don Pedro. I posted signs for the Nationalists
in my town” (Nelson Gómez, 4/20/06). Frank Vergara, who joined in 1972, recalled:
I used to tell people in El Comité I’m in the movement because of my mother and
grandmother…. They came here when Truman ordered the liquidation of the
Nationalist Party. Why? Because my grandmother was an organizer, and they were
fleeing for their lives. (Frank Vergara, 9/4/04)
Pedro Rentas, an automobile factory worker in Tarrytown when he joined El Comité,
described himself as “a stone [firm] nationalist.” His mother lived in Ponce at the time of
the 1937 Massacre and was one of the women who sewed hats for the Nationalists.
She always talked about that. When she found out I was getting involved,
she got scared, really scared. She knew what happened down there [in Ponce].
People got hurt. (Pedro Rentas, 6/18/04)
[ 131 ]
Politics was not prevalent in the childhood experience of Carmen Martell,
who described herself as apolitical growing up in New York City. She came to
New York from Bayamón in 1952 at the age of eight with her sister and mother,
and lived in single-room-occupancy dwellings with her aunt during her initial
years in Manhattan. Her mother found employment in a plastics factory.
For Carmen and other Puerto Rican children, the first few years in public schools
were very difficult because they did not speak English but were not allowed to
communicate even among themselves in Spanish. In eighth grade, “as a person
of color” she was tracked into a secretarial school, Central Commercial High
School (now Norman Thomas) rather than an academic school. Her interest in
Puerto Rico developed when her cousin and anti-war activist, Esperanza Martell,
brought her to MPI activities.
Maria Collado had a similar school experience. Her father spoke to her in
Spanish as a child because he felt she and her siblings would certainly learn English
in school but should also retain their original language.
Unfortunately for me, when I went to public school not speaking English, they treated
me like a dummy. There were no bilingual programs that embraced different cultures
and nationalities, and I was placed in a special class for ‘los dummies.’ I caught on to
the language quickly of course, but it kind of stayed with me always that I was stupid
and had to prove myself. (Maria Collado, 8/2/04)
El Comité and Operation Move-In march to a rally (circa 1971).
Photograph by Maximo Colon ©. Reprinted by permission.
[ 132 ]
As a child in South Ozone Park,
Jaime Suárez’ closest friends were
African American, and he was drawn
to the Black Power movement that
introduced him to Malcolm X’s
. After moving to
Holtsville, Long Island, as a teenager,
Suárez chose college over Vietnam
at his brother’s insistence. At Suffolk
Community College in Brentwood,
Long Island, he met one of the Young
Lords who was distributing the
, and then met a
member of the Puerto Rican Socialist
Party (PSP, formerly MPI) who was an
instructor at the State University of
New York at Stony Brook. Apart from
the mobilizations taking place in the
city around independence and quality-
of-life issues, similar stirrings were
occurring in the heavily Puerto Rican-
populated Brentwood:
The 60s created an environment where
people just started reacting to their
conditions and started doing something
about them. [In Brentwood] you didn’t have political movements like El Comité or the
Young Lords. But people started dealing with their problems, feeling like we have a
right to do this. There was a Puerto Rican cultural center that brought the community
together. It wasn’t politically motivated at first; but by 1970–71, it became political
around the issue of police brutality…. [Activists] started challenging the authorities….
There were also individuals who had been involved in the Nationalist Party who…began
to get involved in education issues…. So in mycase, I was influenced by nationalism and
by community and was involved politically for about two years before joining El Comité.
(Jaime Suárez, 3/18/06)
Placing U.S.-led repression of the Nationalists in Puerto Rico and migration in
the historical context of McCarthy-era efforts to hush dissent from all quarters,
Army veteran Luis Ithier captured the concerns of his parents’ generation:
You have to remember that our parents came here during repression of the
independence movement in the 1950s when everybody was getting killed or
imprisoned. No matter what, if you thought freedom in your mind, you were jailed.
They sent the militia and everything else. That dissuaded a whole lot of people who
had nationalistic feelings from expressing them. Even here in the U.S., nationalism
was a bad word because you remembered what happened to the nationalists in
Washington. (Luis Ithier, 3/18/06)
Young west side activist Roberto (wearing beret) handling
bull horn (circa 1971). Photograph by Maximo Colon ©.
Reprinted by permission.
[ 133 ]
The common thread running through these and other stories is the indignation and
sense of empowerment individuals gained from their exposure, however acquired, to the
cause of Puerto Rican independence. No doubt, cultural nationalism was (and is) strong
among Puerto Ricans in the United States; and it was strengthened by the air bridge
between Puerto Rico and the United States, enabling an ongoing attachment to the land of
origin that did not exist for most European immigrants. However, the colonial relationship
between the United States and Puerto Rico added a distinctive dimension to Puerto
identity, the extent of which is still little understood in the larger society.
The independence movement in New York in the 1960s and 1970s provided the main path
for Puerto Ricans to understand their history and heritage, especially in an educational
system where teaching professionals and textbooks ignored or misrepresented the
relationship between Puerto Rico and “the mainland.” The colonial legacy discredited
the school-book story of U.S. democracy and the belief in Wilsonian ideals as the basis
for U.S. conduct in the world (González 2000; Guzmán 1980; Melendez 2003).
By the summer of 1970 Federico Lora was recognized as one of El Comité’s leaders and
an effective organizer on the West Side. Many former members attribute their association
with El Comité and radical politics to his influence. After attending a rally where he learned
about Albizu Campos, Lora, an avid reader, decided to study Puerto Rico’s history.
He made his first visit to Puerto Rico that same year with Orlando Colón, traveling
around the island and learning about the independence movement. Based on their report
to El Comité after the trip, and on the material conditions and influences participants
encountered personally and collectively up to that point, the organization established
that it was “foremost, an independence organization” (Federico Lora, 6/18/04).
[ 134 ]
At some point, we wanted to do more than get fair housing and education and
eliminate the rats. We wanted to free Puerto Rico…. Between the moment we opened
that front door to the moment we realized we were talking about freeing Puerto Rico,
it was no more than a year….We talked about being Puerto Ricans and what that
means in this country. (Maria Collado, 3/18/06)
Carmen Martell did not immediately join El Comité because she wanted to
learn more about the various organizations. MPI contributed greatly to her
awareness of the political struggle in Puerto Rico and the colonial context of
migration. But she also felt distanced culturally from the island-based speakers
she met at MPI presentations. Frank Vergara, from the Lower East Side,
was also drawn to El Comité:
I was on the staff of
El Frente Unido
and once a month one of the organizations would
talk to the staff. I saw how the people from El Comité behaved, and I found a real
affinity with their way of being…down to earth, real clear, real humble, but smart….
Before long, I ended up in a study group. When I was asked to join, I was like, thank
you. That’s when we started to have a real presence in education on the Lower East
Side. (Frank Vergara, 9/3/04)
The Young Lords attempted to recruit members of El Comité, inviting them
to their meetings and trying to persuade them to become a Lords’ chapter.
The Lords were respected for their militancy, and several early El Comité members
credit the Lords as their political inspiration. But El Comité wanted to maintain
its independence. Its members tended to be older than the Lords and accustomed
to different social behaviors. Most important, by early 1971 the Lords had become
Forum on repression in Puerto Rico (circa mid 1970s). From left: Irwin Silver (
Guardian, newspaper)
unidentified panalist, El Comité first secretary Federico Lora, trade unionist Federico Cintrón-Fiallo.
Photographer unknown. Photograph courtesy of author.
[ 135 ]
interested primarily in Puerto Rico’s liberation, and El Comité’s members
remained deeply entrenched in local community struggles:
We always kept that link with the community. Most of the people who supported us
didn’t support independence. But they liked us because we were part of the struggles
in the community. We were able to deal with the issues that affected the community,
without bringing in Puerto Rico. (Federico Lora, 6/18/04)
Though they did not merge, the two groups found many occasions to
work together. The first was the Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 13, 1971.
Together with MPI, the Young Lords and El Comité objected to the parade
appearing as a spectacle of Puerto Rican compliance with the institutions of
oppression. They devised a plan to “take the front” at its starting point on Fifth
Avenue and 59th Street, thereby thrusting into the spotlight the colonial question
and the conditions of working-class minority residents in the city.
York Times
reported that, as approximately 800 to 1500 unarmed demonstrators
marched to the head of the parade, “about 125 helmeted policemen pursued them,
swinging clubs…and ran up and down the avenue and along the side streets grabbing
the fleeing demonstrators.” Noel Colón of El Comité was among the twenty
participants arrested for “inciting a riot.”
El Frente Unido was a different type of collaboration between the between the
Young Lords, MPI, the Puerto Rican Students’ Union, El Pueblo del Vladic from
the Lower East Side, Resistencia Puertorriqueña, and El Comité, to raise the issue
of colonialism and urge support for independence. Rather than the disruptive,
symbolic action taken at the parade, El Frente held educational forums in
neighborhoods throughout the city and on college campuses (Frank Vergara, 9/3/04).
This was El Comité’s first sustained undertaking beyond the West Side and provided
a means through which new members were recruited and political involvement
expanded, especially in education issues. Within one year, El Comité had become
one of the three main Puerto Rican independence organizations in New York,
characterizing itself as part of the “revolutionary left” until its demise in 1984.
For years prior to 1970, tenants and their advocates in the Lincoln Center and
Upper West Side areas urged the city to stop displacing thousands of families under
the guise of “urban renewal” and to devise a plan instead to upgrade slum housing
conditions for low-income residents. Only when hundreds of families on the West
Side defied the city and private property owners by squatting in vacant buildings
and cultivated the support of various social sectors and institutions were limited
compromises reached.
El Comité’s political development was conditioned both by the negative elite
responses to the demand for quality, affordable housing as well as by the minor
victories achieved through spontaneous and planned resistance. The reaction
of city government to the squatters’ movement reinforced the understanding
that elected and appointed officials, Puerto Rican or not, did not represent
their communities and that the excluded and powerless would have to represent
themselves. El Comité provided leadership to that movement as mobilizers,
coordinators, and negotiators. The anti-system mobilizing frames utilized by the
movement resonated with Latinos and other sectors whose cynicism and distrust of
[ 136 ]
elites was rooted in a history of broken promises, economic hardship,
and social and political marginalization.
Moreover, particularly in minority communities and on college campuses,
people were motivated as well by the idea that militant “Third World” movements
were needed to reverse discriminatory employment, education, and housing
policies and to demand a non-imperialistic foreign policy. The politics that
articulated the intersection of racial and class oppression in local, national,
and international arenas, though never consolidated into one movement,
nurtured an affinity with the people of Latin America, Africa, and Asia:
Though there is a long history of organizing by leftists of color (García 1994;
Kelley 1990; Yoneda 1983), the third-World left of the late 1960s and 1970s was
perhaps its most consolidated expression. Inspired by anticolonial revolutions,
the US third-world left was an outgrowth of the black, Chicana/o, Puerto Rican,
American Indian and Asian American power movements, all of which were antiracist
and fairly nationalist. (Pulido 2004: 764)
A qualitative leap in political awareness that occurs at a moment in time is
difficult to capture. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the civil rights and anti-war
movements claimed the attention of many young activists. As the civil rights
movement ebbed, the college campus provided the intellectual environment for
scores of students that stimulated critical thinking about political and social
injustice, racial oppression, and imperialism. For many young minorities in New
York City, both on and off college campuses, anti-poverty and affirmative action
programs helped to elevate the sense of entitlement as well as frustration with the
limited positive outcomes of these programs. Some of the period’s activists turned
to Democratic Party politics or continued to work with community agencies,
funded by city, state, or federal government, to implement service programs.
Others, including El Comité, sought to answer the question of how subordinate
sectors acquire meaningful power and fundamental change within a system that is
structurally and institutionally designed to prevent such change.
[ 137 ]
While early members of El Comité may have become aware of Puerto Rico’s
colonial dilemma through individual experiences, their living conditions and
experience with racial categorization, discrimination, and exploitation were shared.
El Comité’s initial political identity was forged by national origin, family history,
the racialized and class-based inequality encountered in New York City, and by the
politicized environment of the period. As the group studied the history of Puerto
Rico, the experience of Puerto Ricans (and others) in the U.S., as well as Marxist
political theory, they questioned the limited access to good jobs, the difficulties of
joining and organizing unions, the divergent impact of the encroaching fiscal crisis
on New York’s working class-communities, and U.S. imperialism in Puerto Rico
and around the world.
As more activists drifted into the storefront, political action moved beyond
housing and Puerto Rico to other local, national, and international struggles.
El Comité approached demands for fairness and inclusion as struggles for
democratic rights, in which opponents and potential allies were identified and
tactics often modeled those of the housing movement. The most significant
outcome of El Comité’s early political activism in Operation Move-In was its
collective evolution from spontaneous reactor to conscious political actor.
I am grateful to Lenny Markovitz, Ken Erickson, Frances Fox Piven, Sherrie Baver,
and Andrés Torres for their support for, and extensive assistance on, my doctoral
dissertation, from which this essay was drawn. Thanks, also, to Tom Gogan, a
former tenant advocate and supporter of the squatters in the Upper West Side, for
distinguishing the various organizations and key players in the housing movement, and
for his careful reading of drafts of this essay. The comments of three anonymous readers
were also very helpful in finalizing the essay. Most important, my thanks to former
members and friends of El Comité, especially Carmen Martell, for their support of this
project and belief that sharing their experiences and analysis enriches the historical
record and contributes to the arsenal of knowledge available to new generations of
activists and scholars.
El Comité, formed in 1970, changed its name to El Comité-MINP in 1975.
While this essay speaks only to its origins and early activism, my doctoral dissertation
(Muzio 2008) analyzes the decade-long activism of the organization.
Interviews with several founding members were held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on
June 18, 2004.
Unidad Latina
, vol. 1 no. 2, March 25–April 8, 1971; vol. 2 no. 3, April 9–April 23, 1971.
In March 1971, approximately eight months after forming, El Comité distributed the
first issue of its bi-weekly newsletter,
Unidad Latina
, which routinely contained articles
addressing local issues as well as the struggle for independence in Puerto Rican and other
Latin American democratic and revolutionary movements. Reflecting its transition to a
Marxist-Leninist organization, its deepening critique of capitalism, and its emphasis on
organizing workers, in 1975 El Comité-MINP changed the name of its main newsletter to
Obreros en Marcha
Cited from Torres (1988).
[ 138 ]
New York City Board of Education Profiles reported dropout rates of students with
“Spanish surnames.” The U.S. Census Bureau used a similar category for “Americans
with Spanish surnames.” Immigrants from Spain, Puerto Ricans, as well as other Latin
Americans of varied ancestry were grouped in these categories.
Figures are compiled based on median family incomes reported in Torres (1995: 63).
Extensive media coverage is available in the
New York Times
on the participants in
demonstrations, police and mayoral reactions, and the intervention of the FBI in the
mid-1960s in New York City.
New York Times
articles on Columbia building takeovers by students on May 1, 5, 7,
22, and 23, 1968.
Mayor Lindsay is quoted as saying, “The aspirations of the Puerto Rican community
are just, and their fulfillment is imperative. See “Puerto Ricans Lay Inaction to Mayor,”
New York Times
, July 28, 1967.
Father Browne has been described as “a personality reminiscent of the Hollywood
stereotype of the waterfront priest” (Davies 1966: 134).
See “Squatters Cast Doubt on Housing Plans,”
New York Times
, October 11, 1970.
The Lincoln Center redevelopment was spearheaded in 1955 by Robert Moses, then
chair of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance. Prior to redevelopment, the Lincoln
Square area of the Upper West Side was the site used for filming
West Side Story
See “Lindsay Assails Nixon on Housing,”
New York Times
, June 10, 1970.
Vélez was head of the anti-poverty agency, Hunts Point Multi-Service Center; Amy
Betances managed the urban renewal office on the Upper West Side. In 1970 Badillo
became the first Puerto Rican elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, from the
21st District in the Bronx. He ran three times in Democratic Party primaries for mayor,
served as Deputy Mayor for Koch’s first term, joined Republican Party tickets in 1993,
and ran against Mayor Bloomberg in the Republican Party primary in 2001.
Obreros en Marcha
, vol. 1, no. 20, September 1976: 8–9.
Also known as
Rompiendo Puertas
, the film can be viewed at the Center for Puerto
Rican Studies, Hunter College, City University of New York.
See “Poor Families Taking Over Condemned Buildings,”
New York Times
, April 24, 1970.
Stunning visuals of City mechanics wrecking good facilities in apartments, as well as
police removing handcuffed squatters, including middle-aged women, are captured in the
Break and Enter
Rompiendo Puertas
Unidad Latina
, vol. 3 no. 12, December 22, 1973.
Unidad Latina
, vol. 3 no. 12, December 22, 1973.
The reference to “West 15th Street in Greenwich Village” appears in the original
text; however, since West 15th Street lies just beyond Village boundaries in Chelsea, it
is possible the author meant West 13th Street where, in fact, takeovers also occurred,
or inadvertently referred to the occupied building at 233 West 15th Street as located in
Greenwich Village.
See “Squatter Movement Grows as Housing Protest Tactic,” “Squatters Occupy
Flats on West Side,” and “Squatters Score Nearby Wrecking,” in
New York Times
, July 22,
July 26, and August 1, 1970, respectively.
According to a
New York Times
report, “Squatters Occupy Flats on West Side,” July
26, 1970, the Episcopal Diocese owned eight buildings on the block, including the six
to be demolished to make way for Morningside House (eventually built on one of the
Diocese’s sites in the Bronx). The pastor of the Cathedral sat on the Board of Directors
of Morningside, Inc.
Tom Gogan, who was present for these events, noted that “Episcopalians for the
[ 139 ]
Poor” included Marie Runyon, now a ninety-plus-year-old member of the well-known
anti-Iraq war group, “Grannies for Peace.”
See “Squatters Score Nearby Wrecking,”
New York Times
, August 1, 1970.
See “For Squatters, Rent-Free Life Is Solution To High Costs.”
New York Times
March 25, 1980. It appears that the other Morningside buildings were acquired by
Amsterdam House, which completed a major expansion in 1998.
This claim was repeated in five separate interviews: by several founders in Puerto
Rico; by Luis Ithier and Carmen Martell; by Manny Ortiz; by Eulogio Ortiz and Maria
Collado; and by Tom Gogan.
See “Squatters Asked to Pay City Rents,”
New York Times
, June 14, 1971.
See “Police Arrest 32 at Squatter Site,
New York Times
, November 18, 1970.
See “Shortage of Housing,”
New York Times
, August 10, 1970.
See “Segregated Slum ‘Threat’ Fought on West Side,”
New York Times
, July 21, 1970.
See “About Real Estate; 2 Luxury Rentals Extend Columbus Ave. Renewal,
York Times
, October 3, 1986.
See footage in documentary film,
Break and Enter
Rompiendo Puertas
The media coverage of President Carter’s visit to the South Bronx on October
6, 1977, spotlighted the issue of urban housing decay and poverty with Katrina-like
shock for at least several weeks following the visit. The
New York Times
called the area
around Charlotte St. “a national symbol of what is wrong with urban America.” See Lee
Dembart, “Carter Takes ‘Sobering’ Trip to South Bronx; Finds Hope,”
New York Times
October 6, 1977.
Here, Lora refers to Juan González’ mischaracterization of El Comité: “By early
1970, some young Dominicans, following the example of Puerto Ricans who founded
the Young Lords, started their own radical organization. It was called El Comité and
it spearheaded a large tenant squatters’ movement on the Upper West Side against
New York’s new urban renewal program….” (2000: 125). González, a founding member
of the Young Lords, wrote that Dominicans were “more aware of politics than the
average Puerto Rican or Mexican” and that the “upheavals of the post-Trujillo era had
turned Dominicans into the most radical group of Spanish-speaking immigrants in U.S.
History…” (2000: 125). This, despite the fact that El Comité was comprised almost
entirely of Puerto Ricans, displayed the Puerto Rican flag above its storefront door,
collaborated with the Young Lords on numerous occasions (such as the 1971 Puerto
Rican Day Parade), and changed its name to El Comité-Movimiento de Izquierda
Nacional Puertorriqueño in 1975. Another founding member of the Young Lords, Pablo
Guzmán (1980) wrote that El Comité was one of the three Puerto Rican organizations
of the period. It is possible González’ error stems from the fact that Dominicans did
participate in the squatters’ movement and Lora, the only Dominican in El Comité, was
a leading figure. In any case, the mischaracterization points to the dearth of studies of
Puerto Rican radical politics in the period.
While presumably some migrants believed they would be subjected to less harassment
in the U.S., it is difficult to say whether that would have been the case had they continued
to be as politically active in the U.S. as they had been on the island. Two factors suggest
otherwise: first was the repressive political environment created by the Smith Act and
McCarthy years. Second was the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which targeted activists of the
revived pro-independence movement in the 1970s in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Unidad Latina
, vol. 1 no. 7, June 10–24, 1971.
“19 Police Injured at Parade Here: 20 Arrested as Puerto Rican Groups Interrupt
March in Protest Over Status,”
New York Times
, June 14, 1971.
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